Study reveals genes associated with heavy drinking and alcoholism

This is an article on some interesting research into the effects of genes on drinking behavior, particularly heavy consumption and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

They aren’t the same thing. Many so-called “heavy drinkers” meet criteria for an AUD, but some do not. Likewise, heavy drinking alone isn’t necessary for an AUD diagnosis. That’s more a matter of having certain symptoms and experiencing changes in behavior.

A partial list of those symptoms:

  • Drinking more than intended, or drinking for longer periods than planned
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop altogether
  • Unusual amount of time spent drinking, or recuperating from its effects
  • Craving, or a strong urge to drink
  • Drinking that interferes with one’s responsibilities, or causes problems at home or work
  • Continuing drinking despite the problems that it creates

…and so on and so forth. It’s not about how much you drink. It’s more about what happens when you do.

As for the study: It relied on data from the massive (275,000 participants) Million Veteran Program (MVP) research project. This was an exceptionally diverse sample that included significant numbers of African-American, Asian, and Latino subjects as well as Caucasians.

Turned out there were actually 13 different genetic variants associated with risk for heavy drinking — more than suspected. And there were 10 variants associated with Alcohol Use Disorders, as well as 5 that appeared to increase risk for both.

This is the sort of insight that often turns out to be essential for refining treatments. If there are subtypes within both categories, that may account for differences in a drinker’s experience and outcome. Right now, we lack the ability to pinpoint such subtleties, leaving treatment somewhat hit or miss. Nobody likes the idea of operating on guesswork.

Genes may not only lay the groundwork for susceptibility to alcoholism, they may also help predict someone’s eventual response to treatment. Other factors would include exposure to alcohol over time, and behavioral conditioning from long term drinking, that cements behavior patterns that ultimately interfere with attempts to quit or control.

The upshot: a brain disorder that is notoriously resistant to intervention. But if you work in addictions, you already know that.

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